posted on May 06, 2020
Interview: Jesper Ejsing
Let us introduce Jesper Ejsing: Fantasy artist extraordinaire, painter supreme and last but not least...Danish. Jesper is well known for his mindblowing work for Wizards of the Coast and his modest talks at many events. We (Ørjan and Jordy) got the honor and humble pleasure to sit down and have a digital chat with Jesper, which mostly was about him.
First things first: What are you working on right now?
Let me backtrack a bit. I play a lot of Magic the Gathering, especially the format Commander and Old School but Commander is my favorite. The best and biggest Youtube channel dedicated to this format is called The Command Zone. I’ve been following them for a couple of years and been featured there twice so I reached out and asked if I could create a playmat for them which I actually finished a second before you called. I got total freedom and I did a classic, very dynamic painting of a girl riding a dragon. I did everything on the Wacom Cintiq with this playmat and that’s a first for me. I usually do a pencil sketch and I hated digital when I used an Intuos tablet. But when I got to use a Wacom Cintiq at Wizards of the Coast when I was working in-house, so I bought one the second I came back to Denmark. The smaller one, but now I bought the big 30 inches one. It makes the process feel very much like my usual traditional process.
Do you do a lot of digital work now?
I try not to accept work in the digital media because I want to just make MTG cards traditionally because that is more fun. Though it is very stupid to do traditional media when doing concept art, so I do that in digital. Both have their strengths, but when it comes to making me happy, I go back to brushes and paint.
What's your process?
I add a bit of paint texture on top, but I don't necessarily want my digital work to look like my traditional work. It is probably more that it is the same mind that creates it. I work very messily in digital. The main difference for me is that I have to plan a lot ahead in traditional. There is no going back. The mindset is different in digital, and it is not necessarily a good thing, as you can make a lot of random decisions that don't work that well, because they weren't planned out. I think I'm still learning, so I don't need to be so nervous about it. Hopefully ill be as familiar with the media someday, as I am in acrylics. I love that you can work spontaneously since nothing is final and set in stone. I started doing it because I felt limited by the planning of traditional, and I wanted to experiment more.
Your favorite magic card (painted by yourself)?
It might seem on the internet that I have a lot of favorites, but it is more because I talk about what I like, and shut up about what I don't. It is more about if I reached my goal with the painting or not. Pacifism and Aeula queen of bears. And Bitterblossom.
Nice! So what does a normal day look like for Jesper Ejsing?
Well, I go to the studio and try to start working right away because if I don’t, I’ll start wasting time by looking up videos of MTG players and tricks on how to win in Commander. That’s easily an hour wasted. So I’ll start work right away and also leave the painting at a state where I can dive right into it the next day. I’m an old guy so recently I've been exercising more. There’s a fitness studio right around the corner and every day at 11:30 I go down there, lift some iron and then I’ll have lunch with the guys. Going to the gym wasn’t a choice but a necessity, I’ve been sitting on my ass for 30 years! (laughs).
In all seriousness, I had a terrible back sprain at Christmas which I usually have once or twice a year but this one was really tough. I wondered if I was ever going to walk again and had to go through rehabilitation. It made me question if I could continue doing what I do, so I had to make some healthy life choices.
Do you see yourself doing something else like sci-fi or comics?
I started out in comics actually as a color artist and it was boring, too tedious. I'm not very good at working on the same project for too long. Making fantasy paintings is good for me, I can spend 5 days on a painting and then it’s done. If I don't like it, too bad, on to the next one! Theme wise I like fantasy a lot and I have no fancy in sci-fi whatsoever which also would make me bad at portraying it. For example, I think what people like in my DnD characters is that they can see I really enjoy it.
Working in the genre for so long, doesn’t Fantasy get old for you?
I love that question! The reason Fantasy stays ’fresh’ for me is that I really go into the character of the goblin, get in his mind: ’Is he happy about attacking? Or is he disliking it?’. You are creating a personality, a character, not just an attacking goblin. It makes every painting new for me and one of the reasons I like my Pacifism painting so much is that I posed for it, trying to act like him. I would never get bored as long as I get into the mind of the character. I create these small scenarios everywhere and it makes it interesting to paint. That, or I’m super narrow-minded, I don’t know (laughs).
What strikes you as different in Fantasy 30 years ago compared to today?
The main difference is that Fantasy is no longer a sub-genre. It’s enormous now and has a very wide audience which makes it profitable and way more expressive I think. The old guys (Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta etc.) set the tone for it but now everything is Fantasy. For example, almost every videogame has a Fantasy element to it and that makes it really hard to reinvent the genre now because it seems everything has been tried.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
Inspirations. A lot of people then, and a lot now. Recent ones are Karl Kopinski. Huge inspiration because of his drawing skills. Paul Bonner, Tyler Jacobson. I am proud to be friends with all these artists, so it is nice to ask them questions about how they did it and what they were thinking.
When I look for inspiration now I look outside of fantasy. Both pacifism and BLEEP are inspired by Ivan Shishkin. I'm looking at more old masters than I did before. I want to add that traditional look artists had before. A lot of the stuff I'm looking at is not necessarily fantasy based, but people that achieved a certain look in their paintings. When you stop looking at other artists, you are not growing. If I can use some of the effects they had, that helps me, and it is really important.
What I absolutely enjoy about digital, I had a couple of effects I wanted to do, and I looked at «polish artist». I asked him how he did it, and he sent me his entire PSD where I could look at all the layers and really dive into how he did it. You could never do that in traditional
Yeah, it sure seems like that. Can an artist do MTG full time and make a living in this day and age? And how does that job compare to when you started out?
I know I am! I can only speak for myself of course but for me the main difference between being a MTG artist and just a Danish Fantasy artist is that MTG is a label, stating to everyone that you are a top Fantasy artist, which in its turn makes it easier to get more jobs and get paid better. Though maybe that is also because I’m a traditional painter, so I can sell the originals. The collectors market pays way more than MTG does for the commission.
That is only possible of course because I paint traditionally. If I was a digital artist, I could never live from the commission alone. Most people painting for MTG work full-time on something else. I try to cut down on other stuff and only do MTG cards because that’s what I love doing. But I understand the lure of making faster money by working digitally, it is appealing and waiting for the oil to dry is a bit hard. (laughs) Then again if you learn how to paint and really enjoy it you will usually be able to make money off it. If you are in this to make big money you should get a proper education instead. (laughs) I am only in this business because I can’t stop painting.
Working for MTG is in some ways the exact same thing now as it was back then, the work process and pipeline, etc. When I started out there was only one Art Director commissioning everything and he was stressed out, now there are 5-6 Art Directors. Also, some cards are more important these days and it’s a huge honor to work on them but maybe it was like that in the old days and I was just too stoked on working for MTG to notice.
You work mainly in acrylics. Can you tell us about that choice of medium, and why you didn't go with oil for example?
I get sick from oil. I would always feel like I was lower in the hierarchy of art because I was painting in acrylics, but every time I use oil I get headaches. The turpentine, the fumes, cobalt drier. I tried other mediums which made it slightly better but I don’t want anything to be less than optimal. That is why I started in acrylics and I stuck with it.
Do you have any ’weaknesses’ you are aware of?
Ha! Tons of ’em! I’m not very good at drawing. I spend way too much time creating a composition, drawing, and sketching like crazy until I’m happy. To be honest I don't really study or do a lot of experimenting. I do color roughs but I am trying to learn something from every painting I do professionally instead. I don’t think I need to, as every painting has a difficulty I need to solve and my focus is to learn and become better.
I think, in some way I try to turn every weakness into a strength. I know I’m not very good at drawing, so I must make an extra effort in that area. Knowing and accepting your weakness is the most important because then you can take measures to overcome it. Constantly questioning myself has been the best for me. Looking at my last painting and analyzing it, learning what I can do better then next time. Knowing what I did wrong makes it so much easier to know how to succeed next time.
Let us talk a bit about Elsewhere. What took you so long?
(smiles) The reason it took so long is that I had to do it myself. I didn’t know where to start and every time I did start on the book I got an assignment that I’d rather do. I had it lying around for 10 years and I always made something new I wanted to add to it. Then I was fortunate enough to be approached by Jean-Christophe Caurette from Éditions Caurette. He asked me if I wanted to make a book and I said: "I basically have it ready, just let me upload it!" He and Spiridon made it in a very short amount of time. I always hoped I would get one of my own so it was a big day for me and I am very proud of it. Even when I skip through it, I still see stuff I forgot. (laughs)
What was the best and worst experience in your career as an artist?
My worst experience was when I was asked to do a fantasy version of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales. It is a bad idea to mess with Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark. I did a bunch of them and it was published. Not long after, the front of the newspaper said: ’Hans Christian Andersen dragged through shit!’ featuring a full spread of my artwork. I was shat on a lot in that article,(laughs) even though it was not my decision to make a fantasy version. I think the best experience was the day I got an e-mail from MTG asking for a DnD cover. Dnd got me into being an artist. It was 20 years later I got asked to do a cover and that was big.
What advice would you give yourself starting out, with all the experience you've gathered?
O shit. I would say quit university earlier. Stop the bullshit and start sketching morning tonight. Really make an effort and forget all that stuff that has nothing to do with living your life. To get your personality into your painting, you need experience in life and that is not wasted time. Try to experience stuff you can use instead of just training skills. Art schools teach a lot of technical stuff I wish I had learned. If I had learned the art the hard way I would be a better artist, though not learning the hard way made me fool around and test stuff that has also taught me a lot. Just relax, take it seriously but don't get nervous about it would be my advice.
Every time I relax, it’s a good painting. If I cramp up and have issues with ‘’am I good enough’’ it ‘ll be strained, repressed, and not very alive. Every painting can feel like the most important thing in the world, but it’s not. Relax.
Interview by Ørjan Ruttenborg Svendsen & Jordy Wedding
Look out for our giveaway of a signed and sketched copy of Jesper's book 'Elsewhere' that is announced in the next days on our social media channels!
Portrait by Mariia Solianyk